True/False review: Chloé Zhao’s ‘The Rider’ skews a classical redemption story

Sony Pictures Classics is planning an April 13 release for the Independent Spirit award-winning film that screened at various locations in Columbia over the weekend.

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Chinese immigrant Chloé Zhao was working on her feature debut ,Songs My Brothers Taught Me, when she met the subject of her latest film. On the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, where both stories take place, Brady Jandreau is something like a rodeo prince. The docudrama director had a slice-of-life scenario planned for the South Dakota strongman, but that was before he sustained a head injury that nearly killed him.

When his fellow riding friends show up, they warn him that such accidents turn cowboys into farmers. Jandreau, preserving high levels of transparency, portrays a version of himself alongside his own father and sister, portraying themselves, who are treated with a more fictional approach. As his world gradually caves inward, he reevaluates the bonds he’s made and what it means to be a man living on the fringes of a forgotten frontier.

A reluctant part-time job at the grocery store leads to frustration and anger. Jandreau doesn’t want to end up like his father, who looms in the background when he’s not hitting the bottle at a local bar. He does seem to regain some sense of self when he looks after his little sister, although the cowboy within him just wants to ride in the wind again.

Zhao applies a cinematic quality to every scene, proving she is a directing force to be reckoned with. Her film is genuinely confident in a way that makes its melodramatic effects pay off entirely. Recipient of the Cannes Art Cinema Award, her style here is informed by the way people interact with their environments. It’s as raw and uninhibited as Kelly Reichardt’s Old Joy or Certain Women_, but its environmental lense is on the outskirts of Terrence Malick’s Badlands. Her handheld camera pans along the desolate, windswept landscapes as it captures its inhabitants in the glow of warm-toned close-ups.

With an instinctive charisma that permeates every frame, it is Jandreau himself that makes this comeback story feel truthful. He has several attempts at getting back in the saddle, but it becomes increasingly evident that he’s raging against his own dying light. That’s when the film abandons its classic redemptive trajectory for a more cathartic outcome. If he wants his pain to go away, Brady must be reflective and find out what else he may have to offer.

Seeming less like a moviegoing experience and more like an exercise in communal therapy, tears streamed and sniffles, including my own, echoed all throughout my screening. During the film’s Q&A session, Jandreau revealed that his main horse named Apollo was rescued from a killing truck and trained by him. The Rider is just as much about new life as it is about things coming to an end. It shows that the Badlands aren’t where dreams go to die, but rather where they take on newfound meaning through a community of heartlanders. This personal account is a modern, poetic confession from a bygone breed: the American cowboy.

Edited by Brooke Collier | bcollier@themaneater.com

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